California Democratic Congressman Xavier Becerra is on the verge of becoming one of the party's lead adversaries against a Trump administration.
Gov. Jerry Brown nominated Becerra to be California's next attorney general last week and Becerra has accepted and now awaits confirmation.
As attorney general of the nation's most populous state, Becerra will be in a key position to challenge President-elect Donald Trump's policies and mandates that seek to undo those of California and other states on everything from energy and the environment to immigration, marriage equality and health care.
“He could become the face of the California resistance, that is a very popular idea in a lot of places, that California Democrats are going to be the vanguard of opposition to the Trump administration,” said Roberto Suro, director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute and a professor at the University of Southern California.
California voters backed Hillary Clinton 62 percent to 32 percent over Donald Trump and also legalized marijuana, approved stronger gun restrictions and did away with a law requiring English-only instruction in schools, criminal justice reforms and other ballot measures.
Mike Madrid, a California political strategist and principal of Grassroots Lab, said Becerra’s ability to articulate and advocate for middle class issues “could be transformative.” As California’s attorney general, he’ll have a “seat at the table in helping the Democratic Party get out of the wilderness.”
The position is ideal for push back against Trump, said Madrid, a Republican who has advised Democrats.
"We are now seeing the true emergence of these two Americas. D.C. will be controlled by Republicans and there is a push on immigration and the undocumented," Madrid said. "We are now going to see a possible rejoinder to that."
Becerra has been on Capitol Hill since 1993, representing California's 34th Congressional district, one that takes in downtown Los Angeles and surrounding neighborhoods. He has been a leader of the U.S. House Democratic Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and was on Hillary Clinton's short list for vice presidential running mate.
But he remains relatively unknown beyond his state and the Latino community, although his work as a Clinton surrogate this past year has raised his national profile.
In the House party leadership, Becerra has hewed to its agenda and been a part of the team that rallied support for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But he also had to help find compromise with the other side of the aisle. Some in the immigrant community have thought him not enough of a firebrand, or critic.
Outside the Beltway, as the state's lead lawyer and law enforcement official, Becerra will be instantly on offense.
Becerra is likely to quickly find to himself in a fight with the Trump White House and Republicans in Congress over sanctuary cities, municipalities that refuse to prosecute people here illegally on immigration violations. Trump has said he would end sanctuary cities by denying those communities and their states federal funding.
Other immigration policy issues also are in the sights of Becerra as well as other states’ attorneys general whose states may refuse to implement the policies and take their grievances to courts.
The effect state officials can have on federal immigration policy is best demonstrated by the lawsuit Texas state officials filed to stop President Barack Obama's executive action programs that would have shielded millions more people here illegally from deportation and allowed them to work.
Becerra is the son of an immigrant mother from Mexico and a U.S. citizen father who moved between the U.S. and Mexico during his lifetime. He is bilingual and Madrid said it can be expected that he'll be a frequent guest on television talk shows.
Becerra's predecessor Kamala Harris was known for her opposition to the death penalty and for her role in brokering a $25 billion settlement with top mortgage lenders over improper housing foreclosures during the housing crisis.
"We know the Democratic party is going to have to go through a fairly significant reimagining of itself, and it’s going to be out of the majority in both the legislative and executive branches in Washington," Suro said. "That doesn’t leave a lot of options so state governments and big state governments like California could be the place where the Democratic party exercises a voice and if that happens, then Becerra might be one of the people who is prominent in exercising that voice."
Latino political leadership on the rise in California
With Becerra in that position, the face of California’s resistance will be Latino, fitting for a state that leads the country in number of residents who are Latino – about 15 million – but that has few Hispanics in its executive branch.
“What this does is it opens up a whole new possibility for Latino candidates in California and as my favorite Democratic strategist once said, if the Democratic Party is the party of Latinos, at some point we have to have Latinos leading the party in California,” Madrid said.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla is the lone Latino in California’s executive offices. He is the first Latino to hold that office.
But in the legislative branch, Kevin de León is the state’s Senate pro tem and Anthony Rendon heads the California State Assembly, the lower legislative chamber.
Adding Becerra to that lineup in the attorney general position “is just an incredible message in terms of the power that Latinos have been able to gain in the state of California,” said Stella Rouse, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland
“It could nurture the potential for national Latino leaders; I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these folks becomes more prominent at the national level moving forward,” Rouse said. “It’s hard to find a shining star in this dark sky when were talk about the presidential election, but I think this is one of them.”
Should he choose, Becerra himself would be well positioned to run for governor in 2018 or senator although that may be too soon to jump to another position.
In a conference call last week, Becerra said he’d be “vigorous” in defending the state’s progressive policies such as clean energy, health care and criminal justice reform that he said put it the state ahead of the federal government.
“If you want to take on a forward-leading state that is prepared to defend its rights and interests, then come at us,” he said, adopting the bulldog role he’s expected to play.
Brown’s appointment of Becerra puts at the forefront a group of Americans who have felt particularly aggrieved by the campaign and election of Trump – even some who voted for him: Mexican Americans.
Trump began his campaign blasting Mexico for sending Mexicans to the U.S. who he said are rapists and people bringing crime and drugs.
He later denigrated a federal judge of Mexican descent but born in the U.S., suggesting he wasn’t American by calling him Mexican and later saying he could not rule fairly in a case involving Trump because of his Mexican roots. Becerra has been a constant critic of Trump throughout the election and has said he doesn't plan to let up by returning to California.
"I believe with this nomination I have a chance to let California know I got their back," Becerra said.